STUTTGART, Germany — As the Pentagon prepares once again to cut forces and facilities on the Continent, experts say decades of downsizing have already eliminated most of the Cold War-era fat, leaving planners with a dilemma: make minor tweaks that will offer only modest savings or carry out sweeping changes that will alter the face of the military’s presence in Europe.
There’s little room left for a middle-of-the-road approach that simultaneously offers substantial savings, protects core U.S. interests and pacifies critics who argue that the overseas presence is a bloated Cold War relic.
“In Europe, most of the low-hanging fruit in terms of base closures has already been achieved,” said Jim Thomas, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who now serves as vice president at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. “Further base closures are more likely to result in the loss of facilities that would be critical in contingencies in North Africa or the Middle East.”
Recent turmoil in Ukraine, where Russian troops now occupy a portion of the country despite Western demands that it pull out, further complicates U.S. strategy. If the Russian threat has been dismissed as a bygone fear, Russian actions over the past week show security outlooks are hard to forecast, even in Europe.
For the past year, planners at the Pentagon and U.S. European Command have been quietly at work on the basing map in Europe, trying to root out any redundancies. This spring, the Pentagon is expected to reveal its base closure and consolidation plans for Europe, which have been described as “BRAC-like.”
BRAC stands for Base Realignment and Closure, a congressionally authorized process by which the Defense Department has reorganized its base structure in the United States. No such congressional approval is needed to close or consolidate bases overseas.
All remaining options in Europe involve trade-offs.
Cutting deeply into Air Force or Navy units would reduce their ability to respond swiftly to crises in Africa and the Middle East, and to maintain resupply and air refueling capabilities for any engagements in those regions.
The Army has cut thousands of troops and closed or consolidated hundreds of installations in the past 25 years. By 2015, about seven main garrisons and some 30,000 soldiers will remain in Europe. Most of these troops serve as logistical enablers and training partners for allied forces with whom the U.S. has operated in places such as Bosnia, Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq.
From the RAND report
Now that most of the Army’s consolidation in Europe is completed — two brigades have been inactivated within the past two years and garrisons in Bamberg and Schweinfurt will soon shutter — the Army’s former top officer in Europe says additional base closures would compromise the remaining mission.
“It distresses me to see what’s going on right now in Europe, where we have important alliances,” said retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who commanded U.S. Army Europe before retiring in 2012. “For all the focus on the Pacific, it’s the armies of Europe that we fight with.”
During his command, Hertling spent a lot of time explaining his mission to policymakers in Washington, where he says there remains a misconception that the U.S. military’s mission in Europe is to protect Europeans.
“I drove myself crazy making that point to members of Congress, think tanks, supposed experts,” Hertling said. “I even had to inform some on the Army staff about what is going on in Europe.”
Stacie Pettyjohn, a force posture expert at the Rand Corp. in Washington, shares Hertling’s view.
“We don’t maintain those bases out of an overdeveloped sense of altruism or responsibility. It is maintained because it provides the U.S. with advantages,” Pettyjohn said.
“BRAC-like” base review in Europe
Many questions remain about Europe’s future military footprint. Will EUCOM recommend modest adjustments to its basing map or bold changes? If EUCOM argues for the status quo, will the Pentagon concur or push back for more cuts? And will Congress continue to see Europe as the prime target for downsizing, applying pressure on an increasingly cash-strapped Defense Department?
“We’re doing a thorough scrub” of Europe bases, said John Conger, acting deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment, during an April hearing before a subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The review in Europe will be “BRAC-like,” Conger said.
On Monday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made clear Europe will take a hit.
“I am mindful that Congress has not agreed to our BRAC requests of the last two years. But if Congress continues to block these requests even as they slash the overall budget, we will have to consider every tool at our disposal to reduce infrastructure,” Hagel said. “A European Infrastructure Consolidation Review this spring will recommend further infrastructure cuts, which DOD will pursue.”
Potential bases on the chopping block
For EUCOM, the type of strategic choices it now faces are captured in a recent cost-benefit analysis of overseas bases conducted by the Rand Corp. Commissioned by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the 487-page report offers a glimpse of the dilemmas EUCOM and the Pentagon face.
To achieve a savings of about $2 billion per year in Europe, the report says, sweeping cuts and multiple base closures would be required, including the Army’s Joint Multinational Training Center in Grafenwöhr, Aviano Air Base in Italy and RAF Lakenheath in the U.K.
In addition, the Army’s two remaining combat brigades would have to be returned to the U.S. along with most soldiers in Europe. Meanwhile, the Air Force presence of roughly 30,000 Airmen would have to be cut in half.
If the Army instead retained the JMTC to maintain training ties with allies, which military leaders have deemed critical to alliance readiness and unity, more rotational forces would be required to make up for lost ground forces. The use of more rotational forces, however, would result in a savings of only $1 billion, Rand says.
For Hertling, the Army’s training grounds in Grafenwöhr and Hohenfels are the heart of the Army’s mission in Europe and should be off the chopping block.
Since 2008, JMTC has trained 70,000 U.S. and 33,000 multinational forces from 27 countries, with many troops going on to fight in Afghanistan.
“Most European partners would receive far less training with U.S. forces without the facilities in Europe, since most partners pay their own way for this training but may not pay to go to training sites in the United States,” the Rand report says.
The added expense of forward-stationing troops in Europe varies among services and locations; it ranges from $15,000 to 40,000 per year per servicemember, according to Rand. Meanwhile, fixed costs at European installations range from $115 million to $210 million per year. The report cites factors such as the high cost of living, accompanied tours and lower levels of host nation funding support than those among Asian allies. Still, fixed operating costs for overseas bases were generally in line with costs in the U.S., the study says.
Pettyjohn, who has co-authored several reports on overseas basing, said the military must do a better job of explaining its overseas missions to a skeptical U.S. audience.
“It does cost somewhat more overseas, but it is not a huge amount more,” Pettyjohn said. “I think that is one of the big misrepresentations, that there is somehow a huge amount of savings to be had by cutting bases in Europe. In the grand scheme of the defense budget, it is not that much.”
The Pentagon’s annual budget request over the last few years has been around $550 billion, not including additional funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Pentagon will have to decide if it is worth gutting the Army and Air Force presence in Europe and making minor reductions to an already small Navy presence for an annual savings of $2 billion.
Military leaders have long argued that the U.S. needs to maintain a certain force presence in Europe. EUCOM commander Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove has repeatedly said that while some infrastructure can be reduced, the overall troop presence should hold steady.
Hertling, however, said Breedlove, who formerly commanded U.S. Air Forces in Europe, will need more support to dissuade skeptics in Congress and even the Pentagon from deeper cuts in Europe.
“He’s a man of action and he’s fighting for the forces in Europe, but he needs help,” Hertling said. “He needs more help from the other services and the department, but unfortunately I don’t see him getting that from them now.”
Under a more modest cost-cutting scenario laid out in the Rand study, about $200 million in annual savings could be achieved by:
- Closing RAF Lakenheath.
- Relocating the Germany-based 52nd Fighter Wing to Aviano Air Base in Italy, putting it closer to potential hot spots in Africa and the Mideast.
A force for new threats or a relic?
If bases are shuttered, certain military elements must be preserved and deemed off-limits — air and sea power on the rim of the Mediterranean and in Turkey should be protected from further cuts, said Thomas, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense.
“Similarly, main operating air bases in northern Europe represent a huge sunk cost that should be sustained given the combat power they can generate, as well as their role as en route infrastructure lily pads to support air bridges to the Middle East or Central Asia,” he said.
Pettyjohn concurred that preserving key “access and en route” points is essential in plotting a basing map strategy.
Still, the Army role in Europe shouldn’t be dismissed, Thomas said. Over the past decade, the military has shifted its focus toward the Mediterranean, but not entirely away from the countries east of Poland.
During that period, several actions by Russia have been a cause of concern, including its involvement in the 2008 war in Georgia, periodic threats to cut off gas supplies to its neighbors, and suspected violation of a 1987 nuclear missile test ban treaty. And on Friday, reports of Russian troops entering Ukraine’s Crimea region prompted President Barack Obama to caution Russia there would be “costs” if military action is taken in the country. Despite Obama’s warning, Russia on Saturday took over Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, home to many ethnic Russians.
In light of such developments, USAREUR needs to focus on building the defense capabilities of “frontline allies” such as Poland through more partnerships, Thomas said.
“Just as we’ve shifted the balance of our forces in Europe south of the Alps over the past decade, we may now need to shift our weight toward the Vistula,” he said, referring to the great river of Poland that empties into the Baltic Sea.
“In the absence of a clear strategic vision of what we want our future posture in Europe to be and [and unless we] are able to articulate more effectively the enduring purposes that forces and bases there serve, we are likely to experience posture reductions driven more by budget expediencies and the lack of congressional support for maintaining overseas bases,” Thomas said.
Added Hertling: “Part of the problem is there’s no constituency for the forces in Europe. But I hope common sense and a more strategic view will eventually prevail.”